It rises above the snow-dusted treetops like something from a fairytale. What seems to be a castle, with a multitude of towers poking up above the forest. Behind, the backdrop of a spectacular mountain range.
We could be in Europe. Arguably, we should be in Europe to experience a vista like this. Perhaps Germany, where you'd find Neuschwanstein Castle, the inspiration for the castle in Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Or Britain, where dozens of castles still dot the countryside, in some cases still occupied by the nobility.
But we're a long way from Europe. And this is no castle.
This is Canada and the building before me is one of the country's most iconic hotels — the Fairmont Banff Springs.
It's origins date back to the late 1880s, when American William Van Horne was appointed as the Canadian Pacific Railway general manager, charged with building a railway line across the world's second-largest country.
After reaching the Rocky Mountains in 1883, Van Horne saw the opportunity for tourism in the beauty and natural hot springs of the region and had the railway company build grand hotels to attract visitors. His vision became a reality in 1888, when Banff Springs opened.
It was a great success and over the next 25 years, the hotel expanded to accommodate more guests. The railway built a second hotel in the region — the Chateau Lake Louise.
While the latter arguably offers a more beautiful location, sitting on the bank of its namesake lake, for my money Banff Springs is the more beautiful of the two buildings.
In 1926 a fire burnt down the north wing of the hotel, but by 1928 it had been restored and expanded again, launching a golden era for the hotel when wealthy visitors would stay for periods of two or three months (at great expense).
The hotel closed during World War II as tourism fell away, but reopened in 1945. It remained open for most of the pandemic,
The hotel was rebranded as a Fairmont in 2001, following the merger between Canadian Pacific Hotels and America's Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. In 2016, Fairmont itself was acquired by France's Accor.
After its gradual growth over 100 years, today Banff Springs is an imposing presence, despite being dwarfed by the mountains behind it.
Its main entrance opens into a cosy entryway, with the larger lobby off to the right and the concierge to the left. Straight ahead, it's a short walk to the lifts.
Charming, old fashioned elements survive. There's a see-through mail chute by the lifts, which still works (I can attest to this, as the postcard I drop down makes its way to my grandmother back in Australia).
The rear terrace, overlooking a spectacular valley towards Mount Rundle, is the sort of place you might expect to see Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant sitting out on, enjoying a pre-dinner drink (indeed, the former famously stayed here in the '50s during the filming of River of No Return with Robert Mitchum).
In the distance, a herd of wild elk make their way down the valley, eventually entering the grounds of the hotel itself.
There are eight restaurants and other dining spaces within the hotel, ranging from pub-favourite comfort food to fine dining. I spend one long evening at Grapes Charcuterie, which features an outstanding selection of meats and cheeses, even if I don't partake in the matching wines (I don't drink wine).
There are so many dining options, so many bars and so many nooks and crannies to explore across the property that it's hard to leave.
Nevertheless, there are other highlights in Banff to see. It's late winter and temperatures are freezing, so there's plenty of snow on the surrounding peaks.
It's hard to leave, but there are other highlights to see in this mountain town. I'm not a skier, but that doesn't mean I can't make the most of of a slope — I take the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain for lunch. The spectacular views amid a clear blue sky make me forget about the crisp air.
I later explore Johnston Canyon — one of the most popular attractions in the national park. Frozen solid, I don cleats to walk along the river's slippery surface, provided by Discover Banff Tours. Our guide takes along the canyon to the upper falls, where the water has frozen to create a giant, icy curtain 40 metres high.
It's cold, despite my heavy duty winter clothing, so I decide it's time to experience the attraction that brought Banff Springs to the attention of tourists in the first place — the springs themselves.
The Banff Upper Hot Springs are a short taxi ride uphill from the hotel, sitting more than 1500 metres above sea level. First discovered in 1883 during the construction of the railway, the springs are one of nine on this part of Sulphur Mountain, but the only one still open to the public.
I change into my bathers, take a vigorous walk through the freezing open air and ease into the large, warm pool. Aside from the pleasure of enjoying the warm waters, the outdoor bath offers spectacular views over Banff. Shortly after I settle in, snow begins to fall.
It's a magical experience and makes me realise just why this region has been drawing visitors for almost 150 years.
The writer stayed as a guest of Banff and Lake Louise Tourism.
Air Canada has non-stop flights from Sydney to Vancouver three times a week (daily from May 2022) with connections to Calgary (about 90 minutes from Banff). It will resume Brisbane-Vancouver flights from July, though is yet to set a date for restarting Melbourne-Vancouver. See aircanada.com Qantas also flies Sydney-Vancouver non-stop three times a week. qantas.com.au
Flight Centre and Travel Associates offer a variety of holiday packages for Banff National Park. See flightcentre.com.au/deals/canada and travelassociates.com/luxury-canadian-rockies-aurora-borealis